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David Frum, Columbia statistician spar over inequality

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 11, 2008 11:23 AM

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The conservative commentator David Frum argued in the New York Times magazine last week, in a wide-ranging essay, that Republicans should be more worried about inequality than they are -- but statistician Andrew Gelman, of Columbia, author of the new book "Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do," instantly took issue with some of the facts Frum wielded along the way.

One of Frum's major points was: "As a general rule, the more unequal a place is, the more Democratic; the more equal, the more Republican." For example, he pointed out that Democratic Washington, DC, is far more unequal than Republican Charlotte, NC.

Gelman, however, argued that this claim is far from true at the state level: California is characterized by significant inequality and votes Democratic, yet Texas is also characterized by serious economically disparity but votes Republican. "It is in the rich states, but not consistently the unequal states, that Democrats are doing best," Gelman wrote on his blog. (He posted a map making that case in graphical form.)

Touching on a frequent conservative-populist refrain, Frum also claimed that "America's wealthiest ZIP codes are a roll call of Democratic strongholds," which is why, he said, the conservative Bill O'Reilly can effectively recruit Republicans by railing against people "who vacation in the Hamptons, Aspen and the Virginia horse country."

Gelman, however, responds: "Again, this is a red-state, blue-state thing. In the coastal blue states, rich areas are likely to lean Democratic, but in red states, rich areas are more Republican."

Consider the following two scatterplots of data from Texas and Massachusetts, which represent the relationship between income (at the county level) and votes for George W. Bush in 2000. On his blog, Gelman actually made the point using Texas and Maryland, but he created the Massachusetts at my request:


As you can see, in Texas, the richer the county, the surer you can be it went for Bush, sometimes by astonishing margins; in Massachusetts, however, more people in lower-middle-class Hampden County went for Bush than did so in considerably wealthier Norfolk County. The curve is flatter.

On his own blog, Frum mounted some counterarguments: you can find red states that look more like Massachusetts than Texas (such as Missouri); and he insisted that city data on inequality paint a more accurate picture than state-wide data. (I wonder about that: Washington, DC, differs qualitatively from Charlotte, NC in ways income statistics can't capture.) But Gelman's overall point seems to stand: Social-scientific analysis reveals a more complex story the one Frum told in the Times.

Other recent social-scientific work contradicts Frum, too: A main point of Larry Bartel's superb "Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age" -- published, as Gelman's book is, by Princeton University Press -- is that, cherry-picked examples of zip codes aside, the bond between high-income voters and the Republican party has strengthened over the past half century. Over the same period, Democrats have strengthened their hold on the poor and those with college degrees (who overlap only partly with the high-income group) -- and they have made inroads among high-income professionals.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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